Every day while I practice I am reminded of how intertwined the practice of yoga and creating music is. Lately, I have been gradually learning a piece by Chopin, or “Freddie” as one of my teachers calls him. It is one of his most beautiful and sensuous pieces called the “Barcarolle”, and it is a piece which has given me enormous challenges.
For the first few months I would go to lessons and attempt to communicate the subtleties and swells of the piece, the sublimely lyrical, sumptuous melodies and rich chords. My teachers mantra became, “relax, relax…relax”. We would barely get past the opening bars. Each week I would meditate at the keyboard, dive into the moment to moment sensations of my hands caressing the keys. I would return sure that I had relaxed enough, and she would shake her head, no. Week after week she would try to find yet other ways to help me sink weight into the keys, to relax the tension in my arms, and to listen through the tips of my fingers.
One of the biggest challenges for me is to maintain ease and steadiness as the piece builds in intensity, particularly if I am feeling any nervous anxiety while performing. I have to be honest that I have never found performing natural or easy and am amazed how everything shifts as soon as someone is there listening!
When I become nervous, it feels to me like I am climbing steep, rocky mountains. One moment everything is blissful and you feel one with the universe and the next moment, if feeling fear, you stop breathing, your legs shake, you lean into the steepness of the slope which throws off your balance and makes the situation even more precarious!
With the piano, thank goodness nothing life threatening is going to happen. Yet it may feel just the same for your nervous system… one tends to restrict the breath, to carry tension in the body, to lose postural balance, to distort the tempo of the music, and to definitely lose the blissful connection to the moment.
Well, after eight months, I am beginning to find the ease and the breath that must be found if I ever am going to be able to perform this piece. I feel that Chopins’ Barcarolle has been so precise in it’s teaching- that the key to the piece is SLOWING DOWN, and the ability to RELAX. It is about calming the nervous system when under siege, of cultivating a moment-to-moment awareness of the breath, the arising and passing of sensations in the body, as well as letting go of any inhibiting thoughts that surface in the mind. Which brings me to SAVASANA…
Thank goodness for the teachings of yoga. Yoga has been the gateway for me to cultivate an awareness of body, the breath, and the mind. For me, I know if I can’t find a deep place of relaxation, of subtle awareness on my yoga mat in savasana, then there is no way I will be able to find it at the piano. Savasana continually gives me the opportunity to stop, to listen, to relax accumulated tensions, to dive into the felt experience of my body and breath, and to release all the encrusted preoccupations of my mind.
I feel that when lying in savasana, there are deeper and deeper layers of release that are possible- at first, dropping into one level, and then sinking further into another deeper level of letting go, and further and further until we dissolve completely into a place of no separation- the experience of bliss and emptiness. There is a great documentary on called “The Art of Piano”. In it, the great Chilean concert pianist Claudio Arrau says:
“If you keep your body relaxed, your body is in contact with the depths of your soul. If you are stiff in any joint, you impede the current of emotion, physical current, what the music dictates to you. If you have stiff joint you don’t let it go through the keyboard.”
Well, I have no doubt he has mastered that, the sublime genius that he is. Yet for me, this may require a life time of practice both on the mat and at the keyboard, continually observing the tensions that surface, continually finding ease, continually connecting with the breath and emptying the mind.
So, I continue on the journey of the Barcarolle- filling my mind and my heart with its sensuous beauty, letting go of neurotic tendencies, tensions, and notions of perfection…and instead being with the current of emotion, the physical current, relaxing my body-mind to be in contact with the depths of my soul.